The Rickshaw Man (無法松の一生, Hiroshi Inagaki, 1958)

Japanese cinema has a special affinity with loveable rogues. We forgive their mischief and inconvenient troublemaking because deep down we know they’re kindhearted and even when they act impulsively it’s only out of an abundance of misplaced emotion. The wild Matsu is a case in point, brought to life by the great Toshiro Mifune in Hiroshi Inagaki’s remake of a story he first adapted 15 years previously but was apparently unhappy with because of the censorship demands of the time. What is surprising, therefore, is that despite his otherwise liberal outlook Inagaki largely echoes those problematic pre-war views, opting to focus on the tragic comic figure of Matsugoro rather than engage with the destructive visions of toxic masculinity that his well-meaning paternalism represents or with the latent feudalism which continues to inform the later course of his life. 

Beginning in 1897, Inakagaki introduces us to “The Wild Matsu” (Toshiro Mifune) on his “illegal” return to Kokura from which he had apparently been “banished” because of an “incident” the previous year. This time, Matsugoro has crawled back home apparently ill in bed and nursing his head after getting into an argument with a man who turned out to be the kendo instructor for the local police. Unafraid to embarrass himself, Matsugoro later relates the tale as a funny anecdote, admitting that the kendo master put an end to their fight in record time by striking him on the head and knocking him out. Typical Matsugoro, seems to be the reaction from all around him. Later he takes offence with a ticket seller who refuses him a comp to the show when free tickets are usually available to rickshaw drivers (publicity tools haven’t changed as much as you’d think), returning later in the evening and buying a ticket with a friend but setting up a mini stove to bake garlic and stink the place out as his revenge. A calm and rational mediator later explains to him that though he can understand why he was upset because it causes confusion when people refuse to abide by longstanding traditions, his stunt has ruined the evening of a lot of people who weren’t really involved in his vendetta. Immediately seeing the error of his ways, Matsugoro determines to make a full and complete apology to the spectators whom he’d so thoughtlessly inconvenienced. 

This incident demonstrates Matsugoro’s essential goodness. He may be impulsive and easily offended, but he means no harm and even his “revenge” is an amusing, petty affair rather than something dark or violent. The main thrust of the narrative, however, kicks in when he spots a lonely little boy being made fun of by his friends because he’s too scared to climb a tree. Matsugoro pauses to tell him that he needs to man up, but on his way back finds the other kids running away and the boy on the floor crying after having fallen and broken a leg. Finding out where he lives, Matsugoro picks the boy up and takes him home to his mother (Hideko Takamine) who further enlists him to take the child to a doctor. 

The boy, Toshio, lives in the old “samurai district” and is the son of army officer Kotaro Yoshioka (Hiroshi Akutagawa), a cheerful man who though holding similar views on manliness to Matsugoro, finds the incident faintly amusing. In fact, Kotaro had heard of “The Wild Matsu” because he was once very rude to an army general he was charged with conveying from place to place during a series of official events. He decides to invite Matsugoro to dinner and the two men hit it off, but Kotaro suddenly dies of a fever leaving his wife Yoshiko alone with their son, worrying that she won’t be able to cure his sensitivity and turn him into a “strong” young man now that he lacks a male role model. 

Matsugoro is perfectly happy to fill that role, bonding with the little boy but always encouraging him to be “manly” which, in this age, largely means strong and athletic, rational and obedient while manfully repressing his feelings, and finally a willingness and ability to fight. While all of this is going on, we see the tides of militarism rising even in the early years of the century. The Russo-Japanese war giving way to the taking of Qingdao while flags go up everywhere and patriotic celebrations of martial glory become ever more frequent, but the problematic quality of this age of hypermasculinty is never questioned even as it leads the nation towards a decidedly dark destiny. 

Meanwhile, Matsugoro seems to have fallen in deep yet impossible love with Yoshiko but is prevented from voicing his feelings because of a deep seated sense of social inferiority. Matsugoro’s life has been limited not only because he was born poor, but because of a traumatic childhood with a cruel step-mother. Denied a proper education, he is largely illiterate and rickshaw driving, which depends only on his physical strength and stamina (the most highly praised qualities of the age), is all that he can expect out of life. We never have any inkling of how Yoshiko views Matsugoro, if there are any romantic feelings on her part or she simply admires him as a robust and good hearted friend, but the futility of Matsugoro’s unresolvable longing eventually drives him to drink which he had previously given up, along with his “wild” nature, in the need to provide a more respectable example to the young Toshio. 

Similarly, we aren’t privy to the parallel tragedy which will inevitably leave Yoshiko lonely as comparatively young widow whose only son will naturally become distant from his mother, grow-up, and find a wife to start a family of his own. Her anxiety over her son’s participation in a group fight is dismissed as hysterical womanliness, destructive maternity that may prevent Toshio from becoming a “proper” man. Something which is perhaps borne out when Matsugoro, who’d gone to watch over him just in case, has to wade in to defend Toshio who is too frightened to participate.

Nevertheless, Matsugoro is a big hearted man despite his intense masculinity, always acting with selfless kindness but also meekly accepting the fate his cards have dealt him rather than railing against the systems which have caged him all his life from his poverty to the perceived class differences which demand he keep his distance from the beautiful Yoshiko. The wheels of his rickshaw turn on ceaselessly as if relentlessly pulling him on towards his inescapable destiny, but shouldn’t we be asking more for men like Matsugoro whose hearts are good than being resigned to loneliness because of a few outdated social codes?


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Snow Trail (銀嶺の果て, Senkichi Taniguchi, 1947)

The cinema of the immediate post-war era might in a sense be aspirational, but it rarely shies away from hardship or from the sometimes difficult choices which had to be made both in terms of individual survival and the future direction of a society. Remembered chiefly for featuring the debut of screen legend Toshiro Mifune, Senkichi Taniguchi’s Snow Trail (銀嶺の果て, Ginrei no Hate) is less a crime doesn’t pay story than it is an affirmation that it’s never too late to turn back and that people who do “bad” things aren’t always “bad”, only troubled and desperate, but can be guided back towards the right path by the power of simple human goodness. 

As the film opens, a trio of thieves commits a daring bank robbery and then heads off on the run intending to hideout in the mountains posing as tourists on a skiing trip. To facilitate their ruse, they’ve cut off communication by fiddling with radios and disabling telephones but two young men with too much time on their hands have already heard about the robbery and figured out the three suspicious gentlemen might be the fugitive criminals. In another picture, the two young guys would be the bumbling heroes, mistaken in their assumption that their world has been invaded by crime and probably finding romantic disappointment before heading home. This time however their guess is correct and their investigation has placed them in danger. The leader, Nojiri (Takashi Shimura), whips out a gun on a collection of drunken labourers and forces them out of their clothes and into the hot spring so the gang can make their escape further up the mountain, eventually taking refuge in a tiny lodge run by a philosophical grandpa (Kokuten Kōdo) and his cheerful teenage granddaughter (Setsuko Wakayama).

The police are in hot pursuit, but it is by nature which we will be judged. After leaving the hotel, the trio stop briefly in a ranger’s hut where hotheaded youngster Eijima (Toshiro Mifune) suggests splitting up. Nojiri divides the loot, giving each their promised share, but the other guy, Takasugi (Yoshio Kosugi), objects. He doesn’t want to go it alone and resents being forced to make his own way, even wondering out loud how long they’d get if they gave themselves up now. After a fight knocks Takasugi out, Eijima is keen to leave him behind, but he ends up spelling his own doom when he fires his gun at the police and provokes an avalanche.  

Later the patient grandfather tells us that the “mighty mountain punishes the bad”, and Takasugi is presumably its first victim, paying the price for panic and cowardice. Meanwhile, Nojiri and Eijima find themselves playing tourists once again in the mountain lodge where Nojiri is touched by the simple innocence of the young girl and her grandfather and Eijima paces around impatiently like a caged animal, cruelly killing the little girl’s prized carrier pigeon in case it takes it upon itself to signal the authorities. Threatening the girl’s life, Eijima convinces another guest, Honda (Akitake Kono), to guide them safely over the mountains to escape, but becomes increasingly paranoid that he will be betrayed, knowing he does not have the skills to survive alone in this environment. 

Nojiri meanwhile is drawn back towards humanity. Already softened by Harue, the cheerful young woman at the lodge who innocently offers him honey tea and reminds him of his own daughter who passed away at a similar age, he remains conflicted in their coercion of Honda and even more chastened after Honda saves both of their lives when Nojiri slips breaking own his arm in the process. Later, Nojiri asks him why he helped them rather than just cutting the rope and escaping. He replies that all he did was respect the code of the mountains. “The rope that ties one life to another must never be touched” he tells him. 

In an unexpected twist, Nojiri’s humanity is reawakened by a song filled with nostalgia but it isn’t Furusato or Akatombo, it’s “My Old Kentucky Home” played in an instrumental version on Harue’s portable record player, previously used by Honda who performed a silly dance to tune of Oh Suzannah. The choice of music perhaps echoes the movie’s Hollywood inspiration, but otherwise follows the pattern of other similarly themed contemporary crime movies in which the hero is eventually redeemed by connecting with his own childhood innocence through the “furusato” spirit. Still able to find this essential goodness within himself, the mountain has judged Nojiri favourably, proving that as grandpa says he isn’t a “bad” person even if he’s made “bad” choices. Filled with a new respect for the ropes that bind one human to another, he is allowed to return to the world presumably to live a more connected existence cheerfully helping others rather than remaining selfishly alone.